One year after Britain’s referendum vote to leave the European Union, negotiations on Brexit are finally underway, with respective chief negotiators meeting in Brussels on Monday.
British Brexit Minister David Davis said he was looking for a “positive and constructive tone”, while European Commission negotiator Michel Barnier said the immediate goal was to “tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit”.
With rights of expats, settling of accounts and the status of the Irish border on the immediate agenda, there are many ways to interpret what Barnier meant by “uncertainties”.
But one question arising from the 8 June election has to do with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s weakened mandate for the “hard Brexit” approach of completely leaving the European single market she outlined at Lancaster House in January.
“The weakening of May’s position, and the sense that at least some of that might have been due to a kind of softening of British citizens’ attitudes towards Brexit, and her association with a hard Brexit, perhaps makes it slightly more likely that Britain will negotiate greater access to European markets, even if that comes with less capacity to control levels of immigration,” suggests Colin Hay, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.
“I think that’s what Barnier’s hinting at in his comments: he wants to explore whether the British general election changes the deal that Theresa May is bargaining for.”
UK maintains hard Brexit for now
So far the election appears to have at least affected how the British government sees the dynamic of the talks.
“There was discussion about whether the UK was going to make a big, bold and generous statement on citizenship rights early on in the process,” says Kenneth Armstrong, professor at the Centre for European Legal Studies at the University of Cambridge
“The reporting that we’ve seen over the last few days has suggested that that wasn’t going to happen after the election, that in fact the UK was just going to try to get the talks started and then see what happens.”
May is expected to tell EU leaders what the election means for the Brexit plans at a summit on Thursday but in the meantime both London and Brussels are operating on the position that May laid out in January, in which the UK’s end goal is a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU.
“One reading of the election is that we will be pushed towards a softer Brexit and that would involve something like a European Economic Area Agreement type of arrangement, but I’m not convinced that is obviously in the cards,” Armstrong says.
“The politics haven’t immediately changed, Theresa May is still prime minister, the UK government’s position is the same and, importantly, on the EU 27 side, they’ve been preparing on the basis of the Lancaster House speech,” he continues. “So unless and until somebody comes up with a different bit of paper and a different plan, that’s what they’re working towards.”
Complication on the UK-Ireland border
The election result has added a further layer of complexity to the question of the UK’s border with Ireland: this is the deal the Conservatives made with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to shore up support in parliament.
“It’s significant that the DUP will be more central to those negotiations in the government and around the government, but it’s not entirely clear yet where that’s likely to lead it,” Colin Hay says.
“It’s not even clear what the DUP’s position is, whilst both supporting Brexit and not wishing to restore a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”
In any case, the clock is ticking on the two-year negotiation period that the British government triggered in March.
The current goal is to conclude the talks by November 2018 – less than a year and a half from now.